How to Turn a Cupboard Cleaning Into a Great Meal Plan

Once every six months or so, I get really frustrated with the organization of our pantry and cupboards. Over the course of those months, Sarah and I have bought ingredients for various recipes and meals and simply tossed them in the pantry approximately near where they should be. That’s a convenient move in the moment, but over several months, it results in a complete lack of organization and an overstuffed pantry and cupboards. It’s hard to find anything and the it becomes really easy to re-buy things we already have.

I get frustrated, and then I spend a long afternoon pulling everything out and putting those things back in a sensible order.

Obviously, this process is pretty helpful when it’s completed. It’s now much easier to find things in the pantry – spices, pasta, flour, beans, rice, and so on. There are usually a number of things that are either combined or tossed, like combining two bags of dried black beans or tossing a mostly-empty container of ancient dried-out flavorless spices, so there’s now substantially more room in the pantry, too.

But that’s not the big money saver. The big money saver is that a pantry clean-out usually turns into several weeks of meal plans.

Here’s what happens, over and over again. I’ll pull out an ingredient that’s been partially used and think to myself, “What did we use this for? Oh, yeah, that dish we had back in January. That was pretty good… I’d like to make it again, or some variation on it…”

That single step is the foundation of a meal at some point in the next few weeks.

In fact, I’ve actually turned the whole process into a rather slick system for walking away from the big cleanup with a bunch of meals already in place and our pantry well-organized for those meals. Here’s exactly what I do.

By default, we save our grocery bags. When we buy groceries and unbag them, we save any bags that we accumulate under the sink (most of the time, we use reusable bags at the grocery store, but sometimes that doesn’t work out and we wind up with some bags). These come in handy during this process.

Obviously, I start by pulling everything out of the cupboards and pantry and spreading those items across the kitchen. I’m usually trying to group things in this step, putting similar items next to each other. All of the herbs and spices go in one area, all of the beans go in another area, all of the dried rice goes in another area, and so on. I’ll usually wind up with groupings all over the kitchen and in the dining room.

Then, one by one, I start putting those groupings back, except I start with the groups that will provide the backbones of meals. In other words, I start with things like rice and beans and pasta and unusual ingredients and save things like flour and spices for later on.

Whenever I grab an ingredient that could be the key part of a meal, I stop and ask myself what kind of meal I’d like to prepare with that ingredient. So, let’s say I grab a bag of dried black beans. I’ll ask myself what kinds of things I might like to make with those beans.

Maybe I’ll want to make black bean enchiladas. Perhaps I want to make some kind of chili with black beans in it. Maybe I have some weird idea in mind, or maybe I’ll just turn to Google and see what I find.

Through some method or another, I’ll come up with a recipe using those black beans. Then, I’ll look around the kitchen for the other ingredients for that recipe. I’ll gather everything together for that recipe into one place and even measure out the ingredients.

Then, on my phone or my tablet, I’ll start making a meal plan of sorts. I’ll open up a new note in Evernote or something similar (or just use a whiteboard, though I usually fill up more space than our whiteboard can handle) and list the recipe, a link to that recipe, and then follow that with a list of the ingredients I don’t have on hand.

At this point, I’ll pull out a plastic grocery bag and put all of the ingredients I already have for that recipe into that bag. I’ll measure out the spices and put them in a small container in the bag. I’ll measure out the beans and put them in the bag. Basically, I wind up with a grocery bag that has everything I need for the recipe already in it.

Once I have a completed “meal bag,” I set it off to the side and keep going through the same process. I grab another item that can provide the backbone of a meal, think about what I can do with it, look up a recipe (if needed), note that meal in my meal plan along with any extra ingredients I need, and then put all of the ingredients I already have into a single grocery bag.

If I’m pretty sure I’m going to wind up with more than ten bags, I make simple masking tape labels for the bag by wrapping a piece of masking tape around one of the handles and making a “tag” of sorts. On that tag, I write what the recipe is for, so that I can go through the bags quickly and find the bag I’m looking for.

Eventually, a large portion of what belongs in the pantry and cupboards winds up in these bags. I’ll often wind up with 20 or 25 “meal bags” during this process and a document with the same number of meals already listed along with the extra ingredients we still need to buy.

From there, I can start making some real meal plans. I pull down the whiteboard in our kitchen and plan out meals for the next week using this list of meals I’ve constructed. I’ll choose five or six of those meal ideas, list them out, and then construct a grocery list out of the items that I still need for those meals… which I’ve already noted for each recipe!

In other words, once you’ve done the pantry cleaning and meal listing and bagging steps, actually constructing meal plans becomes really easy.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say I’m cleaning out our pantry and I find a bag of elbow macaroni. I decide to make a vegetarian goulash that we’ve enjoyed before, so I look up the recipe for that. I put the right amount of elbow macaroni into a container and put that container in a grocery bag, then put all of the needed spices into a different container in that same bag, along with a couple of cans of diced tomatoes. At that point, all I need is one or two more ingredients that we don’t seem to have, so I list those below the recipe in my list of meals. I make a quick “masking tape label” for the bag by wrapping a piece around the handle and then write “veg. goulash” on the masking tape. I sit that bag off to the side.

Later, when I’m making a meal plan, I’ll look at that document listing all of the meal bags we have and I’ll think to myself, “Gee, that vegetarian goulash would fit perfectly on Wednesday,” so I’ll add that to our meal plan for the week and add just the needed ingredients to our grocery list. (I usually mark meals like this with a giant B to indicate that most of the ingredients are in a meal bag.)

That’s it! After several weeks, I’ve blown through all of the “meal bags” and we have a pretty bare bones pantry, so at that point, we start filling it up again. I’ll buy staple nonperishable ingredients in bulk and other odds and ends as we need them and then, slowly, over few months, the pantry fills up with partially-used items until one day, I’m frustrated with the overstuffed pantry again and I do this whole thing over again.

There are a few really big advantages to this process that I really like.

First, our grocery costs for the month or so after this kind of pantry/cupboard cleanup are really low. We’ll spend as little as $50 a week on groceries for the next month with a family of five, and we rarely eat out. That’s a pretty nice chunk out of our food bill.

Second, not much goes to waste. I know that if I put a partial package of something nonperishable in the pantry, I will see it again in a few months and use the rest before it goes bad. We actually don’t throw out very much at all when we clean out our pantry and cupboards because we do it regularly.

Finally, it makes meal planning and meal prep a lot easier while we have these meal bags. I usually just need to grab a meal bag and maybe one or two items from the pantry (if I didn’t actually put those needed ingredients right in the bag after grocery shopping, which I sometimes do) and I’m already jumping right into the cooking. It makes things a lot quicker.

I really like this system. It feels like very little goes to waste and it provides a nice “reward” for reorganizing the cupboards in the form of a month of easy meals and low grocery bills. If you ever find yourself with overstuffed pantries or cupboards, consider using a system like this when you clean things out.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.